What Is Distemper In Dogs?

By Chyrle Bonk, DVM January 29, 2020

You may have wondered what all the letters in the vaccine acronym stands for every time you’ve had your pooch vaccinated. Plus are the diseases that vaccination is supposed to prevent even serious? Yes, all of the diseases in a core vaccine for dogs are serious and still a big deal. These diseases are best prevented by regular vaccinations. With that in mind, let’s focus on the D that you may have seen in vaccines like DAPPL or DHPP-distemper.

What Is Distemper In Dogs?

Distemper is a very serious viral disease in dogs. The distemper virus is related to the measles virus in people and the Rinderpest virus in cattle. It is contagious to other animals and attacks the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems with no known cure. Young unvaccinated dogs are the most at risk of contracting distemper.

How Do Dogs Get Distemper?

Since distemper in dogs affects the respiratory system, among other systems, your pup can become infected through airborne exposure to the virus. Being in the general vicinity of an infected animal or making contact with infected equipment such as food bowls or toys can cause an infection. Even contact with infected urine, saliva, or blood can lead to catching the disease. Distemper is also a disease of wildlife, putting dogs that come in contact with wild animals at risk as well. Being unvaccinated or not up-to-date on vaccinations puts a pup at an even greater risk.

Can A Vaccinated Dog Get Distemper?

The vaccine for distemper in dogs isn’t 100% effective at preventing your pup from getting the disease. But before you start ignoring your vet’s vaccination reminders, getting your dog vaccinated is still very important. Following the recommended protocol for core vaccines for dogs will greatly decrease your pup’s chance of contracting distemper should they come in contact with the disease. However, it doesn’t fully protect them, rather it decreases the severity of the symptoms and increases your dog’s chances for survival if your dog was to get the disease.

Another benefit of vaccinating against distemper is it decreases the amount of disease that is out there in the environment, further decreasing your dog’s chance of contracting it. The more animals that are vaccinated, the fewer infected critters and secretions there are for your dog to come in contact with.

Is Canine Distemper Contagious?

As we said before, distemper in dogs is highly contagious through airborne secretions. The disease can be transferred from coughs, sneezes, and being in contact with infected urine, feces, blood, and saliva. This makes distemper contagious if your pup is in direct nose-to-nose contact with an infected animal. Distemper can also be spread if your pup comes in contact with inanimate objects such as food bowls, beds, or toys that an infected animal has sneezed, drooled, or peed on.

An infected animal can be another dog or any other critter. This includes other pets, mainly ferrets, and wild animals, like foxes, skunks, raccoons, wolves, coyotes, wild cats, and even seals. Remember, your dog doesn’t have to come in direct contact with, say, a seal, rather they just need to come in contact with their secretions or something those secretions have touched.

Even though the distemper virus is a cousin to the measles virus in humans, people can’t get distemper from their dogs. However, as an interesting note, the human measles vaccine does offer some immunity for dogs against distemper.

What Are The Symptoms Of Canine Distemper?

Since distemper in dogs can affect so many different systems such as respiratory, digestive, and nervous, there’s no surprise that there is a wide variety of symptoms. The virus gains access to your dog through the mouth or nose. From there, the virus infects the tonsils and nearby lymph nodes, replicating quickly for about a week. It then travels to other areas of the body causing problems. Let’s look at some of those symptoms now.

  • Watery eyes

Usually the first sign of a distemper infection is red, watery eyes, often with a thick, colored discharge. They may develop discharge from the nose as well.

  • Fever

A high fever of over 103 degrees can be seen simultaneously with the watery eyes and nose.

  • Lethargy

An infected dog may also be listless or lethargic, usually accompanied by a decreased appetite as well.

From there, symptoms will depend on which systems are affected.

  • Respiratory System

Coughing and sneezing may develop followed by a runny nose and watery eyes.

  • Digestive System

Persistent vomiting and diarrhea as well as decreased appetite can occur if the digestive system is affected.

  • Nervous System

In later stages of the disease, dogs may develop seizures, muscle twitches, a head tilt, circling behavior (where they constantly turn in a circle), or jaw chewing convulsions. Paralysis can also occur.

  • Foot pads

Some forms of distemper can result in a thickening and hardening of the pads on your dog’s feet.

In wildlife, symptoms are often confused with rabies as the virus affects the nervous system in a similar fashion.

How Is Canine Distemper Diagnosed?

While there are distemper specific tests available, they are unable to distinguish between a dog infected with distemper and one that is vaccinated against distemper. This means that any dog that is current on their core vaccinations will come up positive on one of these tests. With this in mind, veterinarians have to look at the whole picture including symptoms, history, and sometimes regular blood tests to diagnose distemper in dogs. Since there isn’t a specific anti-distemper medication, a definitive diagnosis usually isn’t necessary.

What Are The Treatment Options For Canine Distemper?

Since there isn’t a specific treatment or even a cure for distemper, treatment is often just supportive. The main goal is to prevent secondary bacterial infections, like pneumonia or meningitis. Dogs may be given fluids, antibiotics, anti-seizure drugs, things to help vomiting and diarrhea, as well as eye drops to help clear up the drainage.

Can A Dog Recover From Distemper?

Most of the time, distemper is a fatal disease. The damage that it causes can be irreparable. Recovery is possible, especially if your dog has been vaccinated regularly and the symptoms are caught early. Again, a major issue is the threat of secondary complications, like dehydration and bacterial infections, that can further weaken a dog already fighting a nasty disease. Dogs that do recover are often left with permanent neurological issues, like seizures or muscles twitches. Brain or nerve damage may show up along with initial symptoms or wait until years after your pup has ‘kicked’ the disease before manifesting itself.

What Should I Do If I Suspect My Dog Has Distemper?

Always see your veterinarian anytime you think something is wrong with your dog. The sooner you recognize the symptoms, the better the chances your vet will have in supporting your dog through the disease and preventing unwanted secondary affects. You should also quarantine your dog from other animals and disinfect any shared equipment. Fortunately, the distemper virus can’t survive in the environment for very long, so most common disinfectants will kill it on bowls, bedding, and other objects.

Can Canine Distemper Be Prevented?

Nothing will completely ensure that your pup never contracts distemper, short of confining them to a bubble for their entire life. However, vaccinations go a long, long way in giving your dog the best chance for survival. Again, distemper is part of a dog’s core vaccine, so ensuring that your dog is up-to-date on just the basic shots is a must. Puppies should be vaccinated at eight, 12, and 16 weeks with a booster a year later. From then, adults should get booster shots every one to three years depending on risk and exposure. Always consult with your veterinarian on the proper vaccination protocol for your pup.

Exercising precaution with your dog’s exposure to wild animals and sick animals will also decrease your dog’s likelihood of getting distemper. Only board or groom with reputable facilities and never let your dog run off-leash when in areas that border wildlife.


Distemper is a very serious and often fatal disease that affects our furry friend. Keeping your dog up-to-date on vaccinations is the best way to prevent the disease, as well as increase their chances of survival. There is no cure for the disease and only supportive treatment is available. Even if the dog recovers, they may experience life-long problems. Always see your veterinarian if your pup is showing anything out of the ordinary.

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